Monday, January 18, 2010


I didn't recognize the risk until we were halfway to being upside down.

Elias' grandmothers may want to stop reading at this point.

We were in Woodchip Bay, a couple of miles outside Eden, New South Wales, waiting out a couple days of southerly breeze before we made the jump to Tasmania.

Alisa and Elias were going ashore for a play on the beach and I was going to stay aboard to knock off some boat jobs.  Before Alisa left we talked about the swell that was rolling through the anchorage, and the fact that the left-hand corner on the beach would likely be the easiest spot to land our inflatable, Smooches.   She zoomed off, but then came back a few minutes later.

-Maybe you should drop us off, she said.  It looks fine to get ashore, but I'm not sure I could get the boat back into the water alone.

I drove them in.  On the way we changed our plan from landing on the left-hand corner to landing on a spot closer to the middle of the beach.

-That way you won't be stuck on the other side of that creek, and Elias will have more room to run, I said.

When we were ten meters off it looked like the swell was breaking as little lapping waves.  I gave the motor a final burst of throttle, then shut it off and swung it up out of the water.  I was about to hop out when Smooches accelerated.  And turned sideways.  And started turning over.

We couldn't do anything.

The wave that had lifted us up curled and broke and flipped the boat completely upside down.  Elias ended up under the boat.  Alisa did, too.  I fell out the back.  My head stayed above the water, so that I could register that they had both disappeared completely.

Then they popped up.  Elias had the completely startled look of a little boy who hadn't even know that dinghies could flip over.  His eyes and mouth were three circles in his face.  He was wearing a lifejacket.  Alisa scooped him up.  I righted the dinghy.  A guy walking along the beach helped me get Smooches out of the waves.

I'll say one thing about human nature.  Flip a boat with your three year old and your heavily pregnant wife in it, and people will come running to help.

Alisa and Elias and I stood stunned on the beach, sand in our clothes, water running out of our hair.  Alisa and I watched the waves roll in.  They looked much bigger from the beach side.  She hugged Elias and I studied the sets coming in, aware that getting off the beach through breaking waves is harder than getting into the beach, which I had just completely botched.

A bloke named Michael, from the yacht Polaris II, rowed ashore and kindly helped us launch.  It all went smoothly.  The motor of course did not start, and I rowed back to Pelagic where we all had warm showers and hot drinks and dry clothes.


It's been ten years since I flipped an inflatable in the surf.  (The last time was on St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea.)  Ten years is not too long a time to go between dinghy-flippings - it's really something that anyone should only do once.  And the crazy thing is that the waves were really really small, and with a little concentration we could have landed easily.  But I didn't even recognize that the chance of flipping the dinghy was there.  I just wasn't paying attention.

And not paying attention is something that you can't get away with on the water.

Elias warming up with a hot Milo after it was all over.


  1. Yikes, guys! We can empathize. After sailing from our home near Seattle down the US west coast in 2008, we had a spectacular flip coming into a beach on the outside of Baja. We thought we'd timed the sets just fine but... well, stuff happens. Our three kids were freaked out (and we were freaked out by the fact our 4 year old got sucked under, and had to be pulled out- despite having her PFD on). We, too, were helped by other cruiser Samaritans on the beach and reminded of the beauty . I hope this quickly becomes a distant memory for Elias.

  2. He remembers, but never reacted by becoming scared of the dinghy. When I finally got the outboard going again in the afternoon, he dinghied in to the beach with me without any concern at all. So thank goodness for that...